Posted – 9.28.2008
Silicon Knights’ magnum opus of Too Human has had a storied history that does not bear repeating in this review. If you’ve heard of the game, are something of an internet junkie, and frequent game sites, there’s a good chance that you already know all of the ugliness that has surrounded the hype. I’ll admit that I’ve read through some of the negativity and developer Denis Dyack’s own interviews in explaining his position and to be honest, it got to a point where I became numb to the noise. I just wanted to play the game now that I’ve finally had a chance to, it’s not that bad…but it won’t be replacing my copy of Diablo or Titan’s Quest anytime soon, either.
Too Human takes a “Stargate” approach to the epic Nordic mythology from which it is drawn from by taking players far back to a time when Atlantis might have been a collection of mud huts. It’s never clear, although the viral video released by Silicon Knights to promote this idea certainly hints at taking place far in the past. In SK’s vision, the cyber-enhanced gods, the Aesir, stand as the protectors of humanity and as the player explores the world of Too Human, discovers that not everything is as it seems. Unfortunately, while the material that the storyline liberally borrows from is epic, the story as told in the game seems only to occasionally match its scope.
When I hear things like “handshaking protocols” and “networked nodes” in the game, I can’t help but think that someone may be studying for a Cisco course, that despite how unique this approach can feel it still relies on modern terminology to tell it. It’s probably inescapable, until you look at what other RPGs, such as Arcanum or any number of JRPGs, have done in this regard by taking certain well known technologies or techniques and turning them around naming them into oddest things you may ever yet see. With those and other examples out in the wild, Too Human’s distance from today’s myths doesn’t seem to have gone far enough which was somewhat disappointing, that ten thousand plus years later we would be using “handshaking protocols” all over again.
The story is a mixed bag with its own set of issues, most of which lie with some of the embarrassingly over-macho and cliched dialogue hampering the otherwise decent voice acting. Marine-type grunt? Check. Scared soldier looking for a verbal handout? Check. Leering evil person abusing the help? Check. It’s all here. The manual helps to explain some of the characters and the world in general, but you’ll still be left in the dark about a lot of things such as what exactly the “Pact of the Fallen” is or just where all of these machines are coming from. The good thing is that the music isn’t half bad, so while you’re busy trying to figure out a motive for why you want to invite yourself over to Valhalla, it will keep you company.
The cut scenes also waver between strong moments such as Loki’s transformation into a cyber-god to embarrassing WTFs such where a character clad in armor except for his head manages to escape because the small army sent in to stop him apparently all miss his head with their rain of lead while he walks right at them. No force bubble over his cranium, no mophing nanosteel to grow out of his collar. All I could think of was that his face scared the bullets away. It’s not entirely without some surprises, however, such as how Idun’s “Apples” of immortality are represented or what the giants of Ymir are in SK’s vision by replacing mysticism with high science which occasionally works. It doesn’t do much for characterizations or for caring about Baldur in general, but certain characters do have some intriguing facets to them such as Heimdall or Loki.
In the graphics department, the game doesn’t look too bad and certain areas manage to blend together the technological circuitry of its stylized setting alongside traditional facades of wood, stone, and soaring statuary. Not everything looks as good, however, especially the water and some of the special effects, and some of the things you will be seeing can get repetitive in many of the dungeons, but all in all, it isn’t bad to stare at for several hours. Some of the animation, though, can appear bizarre within a few of the cut scenes, but the weapon flourishes and other elements in the background make up for most of the oddness. Some of it also happens at the strangest moments. Running into someone in the hall and stopping to talk in-game can kick off Baldur’s idle animation which happens to be stretching out and shaking his feet, all the while talking with a straight face. I guess even gods have to work out.
The player takes on the role of Baldur, the most “human” of ODIN’s chosen Aesir, as he pursues his quest to destroy his enemies through four major dungeon areas. Mechanical “goblins” will be the most common fodder that he will be slaking his sword’s thirst with, although a conspiracy quickly rises up from the shadows of his past to make him question his very existence. The first of a promised trilogy of titles, the game predictably ends with a surprising cliffhanger which easily sets up the next chapter. It’s a pretty decent ending, worthy enough to reward the twelve hours I spent slagging enemies in the game for, but I only hope that the next chapter fixes the issues that nearly derailed the experience for me.
Picking a class is the first order of divine business and there are several to choose from such as the stalwart Defender who can soak up plenty of damage while dealing out a bit of his own, the Commando whose ranged attacks keep the enemy at bay, or the jack-of-all-trades, the Champion. Each class has its own set of special skills lined up in a tree for the player to improve them with as they gain levels and if a mistake is made, they can be redone although the class you choose is locked in unless you decide to begin a new game.
The skill trees have a variety of specials to them, such as allowing the spider module that Baldur can call up to act as a mine to blow up foes or set them on fire. There are also battle cries that can be improved that act as special buffs allowing Baldur to commit even more crushing damage on foes in the air or open them up for critical damage on the ground. At one point, the player will also be given a choice of either opting in for some cybernetics or staying human, both paths of which offer particular benefits and deficiencies that have to be weighed carefully because it’s a choice that comes only once with each character you play through as.
Silicon Knights have managed to translate the harried button mashing or mouse clicking inherent in hack ‘n slashers like Gauntlet or Shining Force Neo into simply tilting the right analog stick at enemies and letting Baldur automatically deliver runic steel down his enemies’ throats. That’s all you really need to do: point the right analog stick at your enemies and watch him glide over to tear them up. Hey, running into enemies worked for Ys’ Adol Christin at the beginning of his career.
Rise to Honor’s martial arts action followed something of the same path, allowing players to kick and punch their way through the game using the right stick. In Too Human’s case, Baldur will be gliding to each foe and instead of tapping out combinations, the player merely has to hold the stick towards the next victim. The more foes that he takes out, the better for his combo gauge tracking each kill. There are three levels of his combo gauge and the higher it is, the faster that Baldur will be able to zip over to his enemies and dispatch them. The combo meter also allows Baldur to use “ruiners” at the cost of one of these levels, special attacks that deal damage to foes within range.
When it really gets going, it’s actually pretty exciting stuff to keep up with as foes start falling like dominoes on the battlefield with a mere flick of the stick, Baldur smashing through each one in turn, and then moving onto the next target. It’s not as tangible a feeling as button mashing might be in taking a more active part in the melee, but it is satisfying on another level by distilling the manual labor out of the equation and allowing the player to get right down to the specifics as you try and keep up. As fun as it can be,it can get somewhat repetitive especially when the game throws a few cheap shots your way. When I first started out with Too Human, the first two areas of the game made me wonder why it didn’t carry the subtitle “Missile Spam and Shockwave Attack Sweetness” because of the number of foes that resorted to these types of attacks. Baldur can do a rolling dodge that miraculously makes him impervious to damage, however, allowing him to escape and slide on over to take care of business.
Probably to offset the feeling that the gameplay might get stale, enemies can also be launched into the air with two taps of the stick allowing the player to jump up and pound away at them with another combination of blows. Not every foe can be launched like this such as the major bosses or particularly huge foes, but a number of “hero” type enemies bearing fun loving names along the lines of “He Whose Breath Smells of Week Old Pizza Digested in a Corpse” can be. Trolls, huge walking war machines, also require a subtle touch to take down. After a little pounding to strip off some of their armor and weapons, Baldur can hop atop them from behind and, using the left stick to balance him atop their shoulders, can strike with the death dealing blow. This can be fun to do, but the game also tends to cheat by making certain trolls indestructible until they are taken out in this way which can feel as if you are led by the nose to do what the designer wants you to.
Too Human also allows you to shoot it out with anything that has a trigger, although the aiming mechanics seem sloppy. Panning across a group of foes in order to specifically home in on one enemy is problematic, especially when the enemy chooses to rush you often. Guns definitely feel as if they take a backseat to much of the action which feels inclined towards players eager to get into it up close and personal, but they are useful for specifically targeting the weak points on larger foes where simply flailing away with a blade does nothing but raise your blood pressure.
Speaking of weapons, there’s a ton of them that the game generates including a wide selection of fine armor and gear that Baldur can use to survive just a bit longer as well as change his look. Rune slots on most of the gear allow the player to customize them with a variety of effects and bonuses as they collect them and blueprints allow Baldur to forge powerful and unique toys. Rune charms bestow subtle bonuses that carry through the gameplay no matter what Baldur might be using or wearing, but certain conditions have to be unlocked before they can be useful. Everything is also level based which might put off players hoping to dive into battle with the newest Screaming Mattock of Undiluted Annihilation, but there are always a few exceptional pieces that are always within reach to keep the carrot dangling.
There’s no difficulty level to really speak of, no “Epic” mode to work towards since the enemies in the game scale along with Baldur’s level with only his weapons and skill tree to keep him ahead of the curve. Not every player is going to like this. It does keep the challenge consistent, but it can also feel as if some of the tweaks and bonuses that you earn for your character build won’t mean much when the enemy is able to shrug off the damage and smile about it later on.
But just when you’re speeding along from one machine to the next, Too Human’s gameplay comes to a grinding halt with one of the most pretentious death scenes that I’ve ever seen in a recent game. When Baldur bites the big one, a cyber-Valkyrie comes down and takes him away in a sequence that lasts for nearly half a minute. I understand that it’s supposed to be a part of this great cybersaga, but not being able to cancel or opt out of this is simply saying to the player that it’s a lot more important than in helping to get them back into the game. I had my fill after the first time.
It’s not hiding any kind of load sequence or anything that I can guess because when it had failed to work in one other instance, I started right back up seconds later as if Baldur were popped out of a Vita Chamber. At one point, I was convinced that the cyber-Valkyrie was a Pavlovian test to train me into playing better or to start over with another class. I would suggest reading the ingredients on a soup can or sitting next to a window so that you can watch the weather to give you something more constructive to do while waiting to, I don’t know, actually play the game.
The menu system also seems to exist in a parallel dimension where time is slower than it is in our universe. You can almost hear the memory chips in the 360 crying out in wretched pain as you move from one category to the next. Given how often you will need to use it, it was annoying to work through, but far more preferable than the cyber-Valkyrie sequence. The auto-salvage system can be useful, but why can’t it salvage cheap charms in addition to most everything else?
And then there’s the camera. Since the right analog stick which had been traditionally used as a camera control doesn’t work that way in Too Human, several presets are available to try and alleviate the pain of working with it. To some extent, it works out okay but it can still be frustrating to work with in simply trying to get a decent overview of a busy battlefield. You can stand still and look around, but even that doesn’t work very well and you might set off a ruiner instead since part of the function shares the same button. Nice.
The level design is also something of a mixed bag, the worst one being the Ice Forest level with its multitude of repetitive platform areas stocked with plenty of missile and shockwave spam. Things only picked up later on aboard a titanic ship called Jormungand and the assault on Helheim itself with more creative encounters which was fortunate given how bland the Ice Forest turned out to be. There’s also the all but useless cannon fodder that occasionally accompanies Baldur. These are the Red Shirts of Too Human, able to talk up a good game but turn out to be about as useful as a wet napkin in stopping a bullet. They’ll die by the dozens, chatter more awful dialogue, and die some more or stand around and do nothing while everything targets you instead. Seeing more of these come in to replace the ones that died is supposed to be a cause for celebration in other titles where that help is actually useful, but in Too Human, I wanted to place bets to see how long they would live.
Multiplayer is also included allowing one other person to join up with you online to play through the campaign together, although it’s strictly a mode where the two of you kill lots of stuff without the story. Players can also replay previous missions that they have gone through, jumping in at certain checkpoints or starting from the very beginning if they’ve finished the game and collect even more loot. They can even do this in the middle of the campaign, although the player would do well to keep in mind where exactly they saw the last “saving” prompt in order to get an idea of where the checkpoint for their return will be at. It’s easy to jump out of the campaign, grind a bit in another area, and come back only to realize that you aren’t where you were supposed to be because you had no idea where the checkpoint had last saved your progress. You can manually save, but don’t expect to get back to exactly where you had left off, either. Other than that, there’s not much else. Too Human is a hack ‘n loot machine that won’t stop unless you’ve had enough virtual goodies.
Too Human isn’t a terrible game, but it does come with a large amount of baggage to slash and shoot through, the kind that you can’t simply avoid and have to deal with in order to try and enjoy what it tries to bring to the feasting hall. I don’t know if I’d even go so far as to call it Diablo or Titan Quest for the 360 since both of those titles didn’t come packaged with a pretentious death scene. Despite the moments of fun that I had skating around as a cybergod, I wasn’t looking forward to crossing Bifrost again just to experience them.
– World 1-1